- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 12, 2005

“Welcome to Brazil,” Roberto P. Abdenur, that nation’s envoy to the United States, declared midway through Friday evening’s elaborately festive Opera Ball on the grounds of his residence, the first time in 47 years a South American diplomat has served as the event’s official host.

The rhythms, extraordinary floral munificence and sweltering heat convinced nearly 500 patrons they couldn’t have been anywhere else. Fans were strategically placed throughout the massive garden tent to soothe fevered brows — cooling off what trays of ice cold caipirinhas could not accomplish.

Among the first patrons greeting ball chairman Betty Knight Scripps and Washington National Opera President John Pohanka in the receiving line following dinners at 33 other embassies around town was perennial opera fan Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, soon followed by fellow Justice Anthony M. Kennedy; Clay Johnson III from the White House; Sens. Patrick J. Leahy and George V. Voinovich; Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez; candy heiress Jacqueline B. Mars; Philip and Nina Pillsbury, John and Toni Gore and Mel and Suellen Estrin along with royal guests Immaculada de Habsburgo and Yvonne, Princess of Hesse.

Opinions were divided on the advantage of the “reality” atmosphere, since it prompted more “liquidity” than usual (the high temperatures even melted the delicious Brazilian dessert buffets — dulce de leche tartlets, rocambole, quindin, beijinhos, among other treats — on offer in separate locations throughout the night.

“I feel like I’m in a bad Peter Sellers movie,” guest Joel McCleary said as he emerged dripping from the dance floor in the main tent. “We’re like monkeys in a rain forest,” benefactor Hilda Ochoa Brillembourg agreed.

Others didn’t mind the heat. “I like it hot,” longtime opera trustee Selwa “Lucky” Roosevelt said with a laugh.

Supernumeraries recruited for the occasion did special duty in Amazonian costumes and feather headdresses from Antonio Carlo Gomez’s opera “Il Guarany,” which, as Mr. Abdenur noted, is not only set in Brazil but was the first opera Placido Domingo directed after taking over as the company’s artistic director in 1996.

“My challenge to Placido tonight is to have him come to Brazil. I want to see him singing in Manaus in the opera house and will do my best to look like a Brazilian Indian,” he told the crowd, referring, of course, to the Teatro Amazonas, the legendary theater built in 1896 in the northern port city of Manaus during the height of the rubber boom.

Ladies pranced and preened in cool designer creations that easily topped the ball’s $1,000-per-person price tag: Sedi Flugelman wearing black tulle and lace by Escada; Ann Nitze floating past in a diaphanous Hanae Mori gown of butterfly motif; Grace Bender in orange Oscar de la Renta; Cindy Jones’ fishtailed Galliano; Denise Alexander a knockout in a pearl-encrusted Badley Mischka complemented by a magnificent turquoise and diamond parure. The men did their best in the usual dark wool tuxedoes, although a few clever ones (Bill Nitze, John Damgard) thought to don white linen jackets.

For many, the highlight of the evening wasn’t the hot rhythms on the two dance floors, both tented and served by Carmen Miranda-costumed damsels with a range of edible concoctions on their horizontal flatboard skirts. It was the Choro Brazil band’s bossa nova and samba sounds upstairs in the air conditioned drawing room. Across the hall was the dining room laden with yet more exotic desserts surrounded by towering green orchids and 3-foot-high palm trees made entirely of chocolate.

Was charitable excess ever so welcome?

—Ann Geracimos

and Kevin Chaffee

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